The Ottoman Empire

Page 10 – Birth of the Turkish Republic

The Birth of the Republic of Turkey, 1920-23

The Allies were alarmed by the growing strength of the Turkish nationalists in early 1920. The British and French realised that the Ottoman government would survive only if bolstered by Allied troops, but they had no forces available for this task – their massive wartime armies were already demobilised. That left the Greeks, who saw the crisis as an opportunity to gain more land in Anatolia. This action was the catalyst for the conflict modern Turks know as the Turkish War of Independence. 

The Greek Army made rapid progress in its advance from the enclave around Smyrna in June 1920, capturing much of western Anatolia before halting offensive operations for the winter. They initially outnumbered the Turkish nationalists and were better equipped. Kemal and the nationalist government made the most of the winter to reorganise and rebuild their forces. They also worked hard to end their isolation and win international recognition. The Turks agreed to help Bolshevik Russia destroy the newly independent Caucasus states in exchange for restoration of most of the territory they had lost in the 1877–78 Russo-Turkish War. This secured eastern Anatolia and extinguished any chance of independent Armenian or Kurdish states taking root there. The American president Woodrow Wilson, who had personally backed the Armenian bid for independence, bitterly condemned these actions, but the Turks knew there was no prospect of American intervention. The United States Congress was already returning to its pre-war isolationist policies.

Poor Wilson did not understand that a frontier which is not defended with bayonets, force and honour cannot be secured by any other principle.

Kemal Atatürk, 1926

Kemal’s government also bought off the French by promising to support their rule over Syria in exchange for tacit recognition that all of Anatolia was Turkish territory. A similar deal was struck over the Dodecanese Islands with the Italians, who withdrew their troops from Antalya in June 1921. These diplomatic gains gave the Turks access to the international arms trade and left the Greeks increasingly isolated. British support for Greek actions was largely driven by Prime Minister Lloyd George's personal enthusiasm, spurred by a romantic notion that he was helping revive the glories of classical Greece. His cabinet didn’t share his enthusiasm – if the Greeks got into trouble in Anatolia there was little Britain could do to help, short of going to war with the Turks again.

Kemal and his generals gambled, correctly as it turned out, that the Greeks would be their only military opposition. In March–April 1921 the new Turkish Army showed its worth by turning back the first major Greek offensives at İnönü. The Greek Army in Anatolia was increased to 200,000 men and in July a new offensive using 126,000 troops supported by 400 field guns broke through the Turkish lines, which were defended by 122,000 men and 160 guns. Following a failed counter-attack, in late August the Turkish Army, now under Kemal’s direct command, made a last stand along the Sakarya River. After three weeks of fighting the Battle of Sakarya ended in a decisive Turkish victory. 

In the wake of this defeat the Greek Army, its morale weakened, was forced onto the defensive. Finally, in August 1922 the Turks carried out a large, carefully prepared offensive that threw the Greeks into a headlong retreat to the coast. All Greek troops were evacuated from Anatolia by 16 September. The war was over, but the suffering of the ethnic Greek civilian population of Anatolia had only just begun. Violent retribution was taken against them in the wake of the Turkish nationalists’ victory.

The final challenge for the Turks was to reclaim the Dardanelles and eastern Thrace in defiance of the Treaty of Sèvres and the Allied occupation troops who garrisoned the neutral zone of the Straits. In what became known as the Chanak Crisis, Lloyd George tried to rally the British Empire in support of armed intervention to prevent this. His cabinet baulked at the prospect of war, and only New Zealand responded favourably to the call for troops. Four years on from the 1918 armistice, the fate of the Turkish nation was to be determined by Kemal's nationalists.

With the British bluff exposed, all parties entered into armistice negotiations to officially end the war with the Greeks and allow for the orderly handover of eastern Thrace and the Dardanelles. This agreement came into effect on 15 October 1922 and was followed in November by an Allied invitation to negotiate a new peace treaty at Lausanne, Switzerland.

Turkey’s Grand National Assembly abolished the Sultanate on 1 November 1922. Mehmed VI and his family sought refuge with the British military authorities in Istanbul. They were smuggled out of the city and eventually went into exile in San Remo, Italy, where the former monarch would die in 1926. The Treaty of Lausanne was signed on 24 July 1923. On 13 October Ankara officially became the capital of the new Turkish state. On 29 October a republic was proclaimed, with Mustafa Kemal as its first president.

How to cite this page

'Birth of the Turkish Republic', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 13-Jan-2016